The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rocket is developing full steam ahead, and today, the company announced who their first customer is; Pittsburgh, PA based Astrobotic. And their payload, will kick-off the next decade of America’s return to the surface of the moon.
It’s a lunar lander named ‘Peregrine’, developed by the space robotics company to deliver payloads to the Moon for various companies, governments, universities, non-profits, and individuals for $1.2 million per kilogram. Astrobotic was selected by NASA in May 2019 for a $79.5 million contract to deliver up to 14 payloads to the Moon in 2021, under the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.
To date, Astrobotic has signed 16 customers for lunar delivery on that first mission, totaling 28 payloads from 8 nations and comprising resource development, scientific investigation, technology demonstration, exploration, marketing, arts, and entertainment. The vehicle has already passed an industry-standard Preliminary Design Review, and the program will build and test a Structural Test Model, followed by a Critical Design Review, later this year.
Launch is currently slated for June 2021, with a planned landing a month later in Lacus Mortis, a large crater on the near side of the Moon with payloads such as instruments to conduct new lunar science, pinpoint lander position, measure the lunar radiation environment, assess how lander and astronaut activity affects the Moon, and assist with navigation precision, among other capabilities.
“We are so excited to sign with ULA and fly Peregrine on Vulcan Centaur. This contract with ULA was the result of a highly competitive commercial process, and we are grateful to everyone involved in helping us make low-cost lunar transportation possible. When we launch the first lunar lander from American soil since Apollo, onboard the first Vulcan Centaur rocket, it will be a historic day for the country and commercial enterprise,” said Astrobotic CEO, John Thornton.
The announcement comes just days after SNC announced ULA’s second Vulcan rocket to launch the Dream Chaser spaceplane on its maiden voyage, under a critically important multi-billion dollar contract to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA.
Both launches will also serve as two certification flights required for ULA’s U.S. Air Force certification process, in order to continue launching high-priority (and often times classified) sensitive national security assets to space on the new rocket.
“Our rockets have carried exploration missions to the Moon, the sun, and every planet in the solar system so it is only fitting that Vulcan Centaur’s inaugural flight will lead the return of Americans to the lunar surface,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO. “We could not be more excited to fly this mission for Astrobotic.”
And while Vulcan will be a new vehicle, in many ways it’s a new and improved Atlas V, employing heritage hardware and design.
“All of the major elements of Vulcan, its payload fairing, its solid rocket motors, its avionics, its software are all going to be feathered in on Atlas flights between now and then,” said ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno last week. “So that by the time we actually fly, or even our very first flight, everything but the first stage engine, the BE-4, will actually have been flown several times.”
Astrobotic originally selected the Atlas V to launch Peregrine this year, a veteran workhorse which has flown 80 successful missions and has proven itself dependable over and over again in delivering many of the nation’s most expensive, secretive and highest priority science and national security missions to space for NASA, the Dept of Defense and other government agencies.
Peregrine’s rocket is well underway too, with production and launch site preps at Launch Complex 41 in full swing to support launch in early summer 2021. The rocket is slated to be shipped from ULA’s production facility in Decatur, AL to Cape Canaveral in late 2020.
“It is an awe-inspiring responsibility to be charged with delivering NASA’s payloads alongside our existing manifest of customers,” says Thornton. “Astrobotic was founded on the tenets of technical excellence, credible timelines, and value to customers. NASA’s confidence in our services is a testament to the hard work of the Astrobotic team, which spent 12 years making commercial lunar delivery a reality. We are proud to join NASA in returning America to the Moon.”
NASA is aiming to land people, a man and woman, on the surface of the moon with the Artemis missions as soon as 2024.